Danish practice's monolithic Shanghai Library East on the edge of the city’s Century Park combines intimate reading zones for individual immersion with pavilions and atria spaces that celebrate life, connection and spectatorship
Libraries are inherently public yet innately personal. Institutional and academically exclusive throughout much of history, the modern-day public library has evolved to become a playing field of knowledge that celebrates social contact, shifting focus from collection to connection. These libraries maintain the line between public and private to engage with others while respecting individual immersion.
Last month’s opening of the Shanghai Library East in the Pudong district marks attempts to reinstate the role of public buildings in China. Across the Huangpu river in the west of the city, the current Shanghai Library is considered an archive, with only 20 per cent of its space and collection open to the public - even though it is the second largest library in the world. With this project, the municipality sought a remedy that could achieve yin-yang balance by reverting the quotient and opening 80 per cent of the collection and floor space to the public.
With a total area of 115,000m², it is China’s largest public library. Designed by Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen - holders of an impressive resume in library-making around the world: Copenhagen, Denmark, Christchurch, New Zealand and Halifax, Nova Scotia - the building is set over seven levels in a singular volume on top of two pavilions. It emerges from the edge of the city’s Century Park as if levitating above the trees. Externally it is perceived as a heroic monolithic volume while, inside, the solidity dissolves into multiple atria and levels. The ground floor measures 5.2m high and the upper floors have ceiling heights of 4.2m. It cradles human scale while encouraging multi-level contact.
Today the library genre is being reconfigured, domesticated even, into a space that mediates home, office or school. For design director Chris Hardie, Shanghai Library East was envisioned as a ‘focal point elevated against the trees, recreating this recognisable association but at city scale’. Set to bring more than 1,200 lectures, seminars, performances and events a year under one roof, the library - along with two other cultural buildings nearby - will form a trinity of cultural attractions that aims to collectively shape and foster urban life in Shanghai.
Exuding solidity and power with straight, controlled geometrical cuts, the design takes the Taihu stone or scholars' rock was used in ancient times for poetic reflection and contemplation as its inspiration. ‘Scholars would gather around Taihu stones, deriving inspiration from their edges, curvatures, canyons and tunnels, which seemed to shift when viewed from different vantage points,’ says project architect Jing Lin. ‘Similarly, as visitors move about Shanghai Library East, their views of its interconnecting spaces shapeshift.’
At ground level, the building engages with its immediate context via two pavilions. One houses a state-of-the-art auditorium; the other a children’s library. Past the main entrance is the agora, which is designed to host events, exhibitions, a bookstore and cafe. Whereas a library on this scale would traditionally be designed around a grand reading room, here the concept is delivered as a huge centre of circulation that pushes the boundaries of public space. It induces a sense of collectiveness and establishes itself as a place for uncoincidental play and exploration. Colours and furnishings give behaviour cues to the users. Terrazzo dominates the majority of the ground floor, while upper floors adopt a softer material to slow footsteps down.
In this huge central space, your eyes glide up gentle lines of vertically-clad bamboo and follow robust concrete columns that reach to a glass roof and open onto the sky. Floor plates stack and interlock, revealing different activities and creating porosity. Shifting sunrays trace time against the calm backdrop of bamboo, oak and terrazzo panels. The neutral palette of materials offers a warmth, juxtaposing with those used on the facade.
For a library this size, functionality and connectivity is essential. Vertical access and the structural framework of the building are anchored by cores on each of the four corners, establishing a rigid structural grid, as well as diverting groups of circulation outwards to the perimeter. This reserves the heart of the building as an open space for meandering. In plan, floorplates are cut at various angles, creating a playful mix of reading spaces on different levels, liberating the building from the tight controls of a traditionally repetitive typology.
The facade takes on a different character with printed marble glass that echoes the centuries-old technology of print making. Alternating rings of cladding and glazing allude to strata and natural formations of rock. Functionally, this allows for the better control of light and unobstructed views out to the city while to some degree concealing the building to create an introverted reading space.
The library’s monolithic outer form is bisected by large, glazed areas with the largest measuring 42x22.5m, folded in the middle with a 40m diagonal cut, which divides it into two parts, offering a dramatic sense of transparency and an exhilarating moment of spatial expression. Behind the glazing is a triple-height reading hall that contains an artwork called 'Living Word' by artist Xu Bing. From a giant white book laid out on one of the tables, hundreds of white words for ‘bird’ appear to take flight across the room. Bathed in southern light, with the background sound of turning pages, this symbiosis of art and architecture creates a sensual immersion and sprinkles down a contagious creativity. At night, the window lends an opportunity for the city to look into the rich and lively spaces of the library, its displays allowing it to become a visible cultural beacon.
You won’t find any scholarly bronze sculptures here. Instead their physical and symbolic presence have been replaced by, including Bing’s artwork, ten art installations from local and international contemporary artists. The diaspora of work scattered across the library demonstrates the limitless bounds of what makes a good contemporary public space. Artist Shen Fan’s ‘Passing of the Seasons’ greets visitors on the ground floor terrazzo tiles. Here large, imprinted abstractions from newspapers are reduced to black and white lines, dissected by punctuation marks. They encourage unscripted choreographies as bodies stand on, stand aside, walk along or hop across the piece of art. On the upper levels, Simon Ma’s mirror-like metallic droplet insertion ‘Be With You’ against a backdrop of timber distorts and alters the rigid reality of physical space and melts literature, art and architecture into a moment for reflection and contemplation, offering visitors a momentary pause before venturing back into a series of reading spaces.
The library is not only progressive in its social implications, but also uses the most advanced archiving technology. The traditional role of the librarian has been replaced by roaming robots that deliver books and materials to your seat. In all, every component of Shanghai Library East - from its bold urban form down to the intimate scale - has been carefully designed, together with an array of activities and programmes. The building works hard to make public architecture. It approaches the site and this evolving typology that is no doubt destined for perpetual redefinition with remarkable sensibility. Already the public swarms in daily, leaving no seat unoccupied and the library is set to serve 30,000 visitors a day - and an expected four million a year. It is a place that is starting to write many people’s stories.
Main image credit: Shanghai Library East 2022 ©SHL ©RAWVISION studio, courtesy of Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects
Total contract cost Confidential
GIFA cost per m2 Confidential
Area in m2 115,000m2 (80,000m2 above ground, and 35,000m2 below ground)
Rating Targeting China Three Star Green Building
Visitors 4 million per year
Building height 50m
Pieces of glass 6,250
Architect Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects
Client Shanghai Library
Local architect Arcplus Institute of Shanghai Architectural Design & Research
Landscape ASPECT Studios
Structure consultant Schlaich Bergermann Partner
MEP consultant Buro Happold
Sustainability consultant transsolar
Signage consultant 2 x 4
Light consultant LEOX
Facade consultant Shanghai DHD Curtain Wall Design & Consulting, Shanghai Institute of Architectural Design & Research, DS-plan
Contractor Shanghai Construction No.4 Group
Artists Xu Bing, Shen Fan, Gu Wenda, Zheng Chongbin, Yang Zhenzhong, Ni Youyu, Mia Liu, Simon Ma, Emily Floyd and Plummer & Smith
Public art consultant and manufacturer UAP (Urban Art Projects)
Facade North Glass
Flooring CFL Flooring
Furniture: reading tables and chairs AVARTE
Furniture: bookshelves AURORA